BIRMINGHAM, Ala. -- BMW AG has refined processes at its plant in Spartanburg, S.C., to the point where car buyers can change an order as little as four days before their vehicle is produced.
But several obstacles prevent that kind of flexibility from becoming common for nonluxury nameplates, panelists at the Automotive News Manufacturing Conference said here last week.
The U.S. supply chain is not structured for widespread build-to-order, said Craig Cather, CEO of consulting firm CSM Worldwide in Farmington Hills, Mich. U.S. dealerships also want inventory to offer buyers at the point of sale, he said.
Most consumers are more interested in price and a firm delivery date than in the freedom to custom order the details, Cather said.
But that flexibility is attractive to many luxury buyers, who are willing to pay more for it, said Jeffrey Gaudiano, department manager of structural planning and distribution at BMW's Spartanburg plant.
BMW's secret to late changes is having the customer's vehicle body built and painted first, then giving the customer the opportunity to change options on everything else until as little as four days before assembly.
Panelists said that was the industry benchmark.
Gaudiano said that 71 percent of the vehicles built at Spartanburg are for a specific customer.
Chuck Ernst, vice president and plant manager at Honda Manufacturing of Alabama, said: "I guess the ultimate dream for all of us at Honda would be for customers to go into a dealership, walk up to the sales counter and say, 'I would like a No. 3 combo, supersized, with leather, alloy wheels and a sunroof - all in red,'
"And a few minutes later, out would come the customer's dream car, factory-fresh and with a full tank of gas, at no extra charge. Believe it or not, we've gotten a lot closer to doing that with the Odyssey minivan."
Ernst said it takes about 14 days from order to delivery for an Odyssey.
Panelists predicted strong growth of build-to-order for luxury vehicles but not for high-volume models. They are, from left: Keith Wandell, Johnson Controls; Craig Cather, CSM Worldwide; Jeffrey Gaudiano, BMW; Chuck Ernst, Honda; and Peter Brown, Automotive News. PHOTO: BARRY FIKES
Build-to-order has grown out of the personal computer industry's ability to give people exactly what they want, quickly. But the jury is still out on whether it can work in the United States. Chief obstacles include overcoming buyer preferences for immediate gratification and the reluctance of U.S. customers to pay a premium for the service.
Even so, Cather says the future looks bright for custom building.
"In 10 years, build-to-order will certainly be further along than it is today," he said. "You are going to see some very sophisticated build-to-order systems with the luxury manufacturers. I am certain all OEMs will find a way to build vehicles more quickly for consumers whatever the choice and the selection of content will be."
You may e-mail David Barkholz at [email protected]
You may e-mail Greg Bowens at [email protected]